Workers and Competition
By Wolfgang Schaumberg
About twenty-five years ago, management in the General Motors/Opel factory where I was working, started to surprise us with a new kind of information at the workplace. On the line, in all the departments of the factory, there are information boards, and we could read, for example, “your wage here in this factory may be seen as 100 percent. For the same work, General Motors pays in England 75 percent.” GM pays in Portugal 50 percent. And in the end, “in Mexico, General Motors pays 12 percent.”
What had happened? At that time, the multi-nationals had begun to organize production in a new way. With the help of electronic systems and new technology, management was now able to compare the costs on a global level within seconds. And they started to blackmail us more and more: “if you don’t stop your demands, if you don’t agree to concessions, we will give this or that part of production of the next model to another plant.” For example, the car being built in my town, in Bochum, is called Zafira, and General Motors has one plant in the world where that same model is being built, and that plant is situated in Thailand. We the workers began to discuss, what we can do against this new kind of blackmailing, of playing us off against one another. So we started, with the help of organizations like TIE (Transnationals Information Exchange) to build a network within the General Motors Corporation. We had international conferences of GM workers in the Netherlands, in England, an Autoworkers’ conference in Sao Paolo, Brazil. We organized exchange visits to colleagues in Spain, in Belgium, United States, Canada, in the Philippines, and so on. And we tried to publish an international GM workers newspaper in three languages. The change of capitalist production forced us to look at the situation in the other countries. To defend our interests, we had to learn a lot about the situation of the workers worldwide, and about their struggle.
The management couldn’t avoid that we’d tried to come together, to close up in a new global context. A substantial part of our international activities was to inform and involve the colleagues in the factory, and to challenge our union to join or support our activities. But our union, the IGM, Metalworkers Union, really did not want to bring workers from different countries together on a grassroots level. To characterize the union policy, you must know in Germany there is a very long tradition of bureaucracy, and of the ideology that unions and government, especially under leadership of the social democratic party, and employers, should cooperate very closely. A typical idea our union leaders always repeat is, for example, the German employers must keep on being the world champion in export. If the first aim of a union is to save the role of the German economy in the world market, how could the union be interested in organizing an international workers’ struggle for our rights and demands?
So we were forced to build up an international network without our union. What did we achieve? We could use some of our connections to inform our colleagues on struggles in other factories in other countries, and send resolutions of solidarity. Sometimes we got useful information for our negotiations with our management. Rarely, we could achieve common actions or strikes at the same time in different countries. Our network is not very vivid, nor effective right now. Only a few contacts are still being used. Why?
First, the problem we had with our union exists in other countries, especially in the leading industrialized countries like the United States, too. Many workers’ representatives on the plant level think or define themselves as so-called “co-managers” and try to help the company in the war of competition.
Second, most of the workers, too, are ideologically bound to the same idea of corporate identity. They are anxious to fight for their interests, hoping the plant they are working at might be able to survive.
Third, my colleagues ask: What is the alternative? How can we survive without considering the profit situation of our company? So my last point and conclusion is building up a network among workers from European and Asian and other countries necessary. But we must not only discuss the question of defending what we have achieved. We must not only ask how to get better wages or rights.
We must discuss and find colleagues in other countries who are willing to discuss the real reason for that damned worldwide war of competition and how to approach another kind of world. What do we want to be produced. How do we produce the goods. How they are distributed. How we help one another across national borders so that all people can take part in production and consumption on a higher level. In the end, this means fight for another, non-capitalistic work [social order].
We should take into account that the capitalists offer us a lot of means to approach that vision. For example, the capitalists bring us together by globalization. Secondly, we have got the Internet to discuss our experiences and opinions better than ever before. Third, we have learned how to produce the goods. We know how to use the modern technologies.
In the large factories, we learned to organize our work in groups. By outsourcing, we have become a part of the new division of labor. We know that we are working together hand in hand, on the national level and even in production chains on an international level, but not with human dignity. Why shouldn’t we be able to work and live one day without the disturbing role of private owners of the factories workers have built?
Wolfgang Schaumberg has been working for thirty years in Bochum in GM/Opel’s biggest auto plant in Europe. He had been a member of its worker’s council and trade union representative on the shop level for many years. He is now retired, but still active in the German Automobile Coordination (a unionist network), with labornet Germany and Transnational Information Exchange (TIE).
—ZNet, November 3, 2004